Big tree hunter discovers 3 of the tallest sugar pines

Laney Griffo

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — For more than a decade, big tree hunter Michael Taylor has been bagging big tree finds. This past October, he added the second, third and sixth tallest known sugar pines to his list of finds.

The second and third tallest Sugar Pines are located in Tahoe National Forest and measure at 267.5 ft and 267.15 ft. The 267.15 foot tree, dubbed the “Redonkulous” tree, measures at 10.5 feet in diameter at the breast height, which is 4.5 feet up from the ground.

The sixth tallest Sugar Pine, which is still unnamed as is the second tallest, was found in Stanislaus National Forest and is 263.17 ft tall.

Taylor is a LiDAR specialist, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, LiDAR, “is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth.”

Taylor said the laser gives billions and or even trillions of returns which can be used to construct a surface map.

“In my case, I’m looking for the tallest trees but also doing digital terrain models,” Taylor said. “I’m doing really accurate topographical or gray shade models for roads, landslides, basically mapping the geology.”

Taylor receives LiDAR data from NOAA as well as NASA and U.S. Geological Survey and looks for where the tallest trees might be located. The maps he receives can be overlaid on Google Maps. With the help of a partner, Duncan Kennedy, they go to those areas, which are oftentimes very remote, to confirm the size of a tree.

Taylor has been a longtime partner of the Sugar Pine Foundation, a South Lake Tahoe based nonprofit that is working to combat the impacts from bark beetles and blister rust. The foundation is excited to see the tree discoveries, which they say allows them to learn more about the sugar pine as a species.

“Finding the tallest, longest-lived specimens helps us understand what types of environmental conditions may favor optimal growth and longevity,” said Tressa Gibbard, program manager for SPF. “Just as we take interest in how octogenarians have thrived and what type of diet and lifestyle they have led to yield such robust health and longevity in our fellow humans, foresters and conservationists want to know what conditions produce the healthiest, most robust trees and ecosystems.

“Tracking down these huge specimens also gives us a sense of possible sugar pine lifespan,” Gibbard added. “Not all trees will get so old or so tall, but it is instructive to get a sense of their ‘potential.”

One example is the Whelan Tree, which was at one point the largest sugar pine standing at over 200 feet and about 600 years old. The famous naturalist John Muir had been pictured sitting at the base of the tree and Taylor said Muir claimed it was one of the biggest trees long before science was taking measurements.

The tree died in 2014 from bark beetles and a fungus attack and was cut down in fear of it falling down on a nearby Girl Scout Camp.

Kennedy is studying environmental studies at University of Nevada, Reno but has been helping Taylor since he was 13 years old.

“Given that we know the climate is changing, what can we learn from these trees that have been around for literally hundreds of years, about previous such shifts in the air temperature or the water cycle, or any other information we need to know?” Kennedy said.

Taylor said the tallest sugar pines he’s found tend to be on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada and up into Oregon where there isn’t as heavy of a snow load. He doesn’t like to give the exact location of the trees out of fear that the public will “love them to death.”

Both Kennedy and Taylor said they can use information from the LiDAR scans to find remote areas where wildfire might be a huge risk, such as areas with lots of underbrush and small trees that aren’t as easy to access for controlled burns.

But outside of the important scientific research that can be gained from finding these trees, big trees are just cool.

“Simply knowing that these enormous trees exist is awe-inspiring. They are true marvels of nature — and we need more people to develop a sense of appreciation for nature’s treasures and fragility,” Gibbard said. “We don’t have many giant trees or old growth left: we need to take pains to preserve and protect these specimens intact.”

Kennedy said standing below these trees is incredible.

“On one hand, there’s a definite sense of accomplishment there. You’ve found a tree that probably hasn’t been seen by human eyes in a very, very, very long time, if ever,” Kennedy said. “But on the other hand, you’re just still humbled by how big that tree is, how long you can feel it’s been there, how it’s been there through storms and fires and generations upon generations.”

In addition to these three trees, Taylor was also responsible for finding the tallest sugar pine, the “Tioga Tower,” in 2015 which is 273.74 ft.

In 2006, he co-discovered the tallest known living tree on Earth, the “Hyperion,” a Coast Redwood in Redwood National Park. Since it was discovered, it has grown to 381 ft.

“For me, it’s like a new frontier but it’s also a treasure hunt,” Taylor said. “I’m being paid to find the tallest trees, which I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better job.”

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